One of my fondest memories of growing up in Jakarta are the times I spent parked on the side of the road, perched on the front seat of my car, door ajar, with a bowl of hot, freshly cooked chicken noodles (mie ayam) on my lap. It wasn’t just the incredibly immersive palette of flavors a good bowl of mie ayam had, but it was that I could easily pull up on the side of the road next to a street food vendor and have one of the best, most memorable meals one can have.
Street food, of course, is not unique to any one country. It is an idea that Netflix’s Street Food series aims to bring to light. Produced by David Gelb and Brian McGinn (the same producers as Netflix’s Chef’s Table), Street Food shares the idea that across the globe the myriad of wonderful foods, personalities, and historical culture can be found around the corner, in the unlikeliest of places, made by the unlikeliest of people. This is the series’ strength. Street Food Vol 1. spends its nine episodes across Asia, from Singapore to Yogyakarta, from Osaka to Delhi, exploring the rich foods you find on their streets. But the strongest connection you’ll find is with that of the people profiled in the episodes. Sure, the food is irresistible, but it is the very human stories this series profile that make it worthwhile.
We meet Grace in Chiayi, Taiwan, who had dreams of escaping small city life, only to find herself back home running her family’s street food restaurant that specializes in fish head soup. There’s is an inescapable sadness as Grace tells of her lost opportunity in the big city of Taipei, but we are overcome when she’s found happiness at home, expanding, modernizing, and running the business she’s known since she was a child. We meet Truoc in Ho Chi Minh City, who after a family tragedy, found it overwhelmingly difficult to find passion in her work. But a passion re-found when her hard work and perseverance enabled her son to attend university. In Seoul, there is Yoonsun Cho, whose incredible 11-year work as a street food seller at the market got her family out of bad debt, seeing her son attend culinary school, and seeing him take up a job at an upscale hotel. This is alongside stories like the purported-last ‘3 day 3 night goat stew’ chef on the planet (seeing how toxic and life-threatening this process is, it’s not hard to understand why). These are the stories that make this series interesting, and it takes cues from what we loved about Anthony Bourdain’s take on global food. He was not there just for the food, but he was there to understand, listen to, and discover the people, their histories and their cultures.
The cinematic Netflix production helps with the series’ presentation, but where it struggles is to find cohesion within the episodes. You get narrators for each episode, individuals who are locals or familiar with the food and culture, but as you hear the stories of the vendors, the production employs cheesy voice-overs that sound robotic. I would rather have let the vendors speak, in their natural tongues with subtitles instead (which strangely, they do at times). Another gripe is their instagramesque presentation of their signature dishes that give the show a less than genuine feel. It’s a shame because it takes away from the narrative of the vendors and takes viewers away from the on-the-street feel of the rest of the episodes.
It is, however, the vendors that ultimately make this series worth the venture. We often forget that behind the foods of the worlds, there are the people who make them, whose stories are just as rich and important as the foods they make.
I miss mie ayam, I miss sitting on the side of the road next to the gerobak (street food cart) while I stuff my face with the best tasting noodles you’ll find on the planet. Some days it is all I long for. But the next time I do find myself eating mie ayam on the side of the road, I’ll take a moment to appreciate the food, and the vendor whose life is as story-filled as the food they are making.
Street Food is streaming now on Netflix.
Make Dodgeball Great Again
Dodgeball is not an ‘unethical tool of oppression’ and to label it so is both ludicrous and dangerous. Have we lost our minds?
I remember it as if it was yesterday. The recently completed gym floor was crisp, clean, and squeaked with almost every step of the overpriced sneakers that graced it. Battle lines had been drawn and there I was, locked and loaded in the far right corner of the gym. I had scanned the battlefield ahead, and saw that the opposition numbers were dwindling- falling like the cannon fodder they were. My fellow combatants were more than capable, some in fact, excelled like this game was art, like it was real battle.
Then I saw my target, arms to her side, nervously looking across from her side of diminishing numbers. Her eyes screamed ‘fear’ (or maybe indifference, but in my mind, it was fear) and I knew that there was only one thing to do. I gripped the foam of the ball with a vengeful firmness, loaded my arm with the fury of a Nolan Ryan fastball and let loose. My memory says the sound of the noisy gym was broken, and that all the fellow combatants and fallen brethren fell silent, stopped and followed this one moment as the ball left my hand to its intended destination. It was a glorious moment. Glorious because unlike most times, the ball flew through the air with unmatched grace. Unlike most times I threw the ball, there was no deviation, no broken flight plan. And unlike most times, where I’d luckily hit my target on the leg, or on the arm, it zeroed in with laser-like precision and exploded itself right in Annie’s* face. Bullseye. Like a bird exploding from a Randy Johnson fastball.
Did I revel in the glory of that standstill moment? Was the brazen destruction of a fellow combatant as cinematically award-winning as a Spielberg movie? The truth is, that wasn’t the case. Amongst the fleeting chaos of the game, no one saw. No one stopped and watched my moment, and that in reality, it was a split second that remains animated only in mind. I recoiled in shock, partly because it was not my intention to hit someone in the face, no matter how unintentionally glorious it was. But partly because my gut instinct was to slink away into the back of the pack to hide unseen- like a cowardly saboteur responsible for the wreckage, eager to hide from the blame. I didn’t even look back at what I had done.
I don’t remember who won this particular game (safe to say it wasn’t Annie), but it was all part and parcel to the wonderful school-time game of dodgeball.
One that has come under scrutiny, and under the threat, by the researchers discussed in this National Post article, who have labeled it an “unethical tool of oppression”. With such hyperbole, you’d think they were talking about a population who lived under a military dictatorship, or a segment of that population threatened during mass rioting. Not surprisingly, I lived through both of the latter, and no, dodgeball is nothing like either. They are talking about dodgeball- a mostly harmless game (unless you are Annie) played by children during recess and PE class.
The article goes on to say how dodgeball, along with other forms of games played during PE class are sports of “sport of violence, exclusion and degradation” and that dodgeball in particular, is “not just unhelpful to the development of kind and gentle children who will become decent citizens of a liberal democracy. It is actively harmful to this process.” Sounds like it was written by someone picked last in gym class.
We can argue endlessly about the participation-trophy culture that has permeated the discourse of children’s sports (they couldn’t even settle on a winner at the Spelling Bee). But the truth is, I fear greatly for the future of democracy if we equate the game of dodgeball to actual, real oppression. Sure, Annie probably doesn’t like dodgeball all that much, but I too was hit plenty on the dodgeball court. Like I was on the basketball court. But it’s all part of growing some thick skin in this very real world where people don’t throw soft, red balls at you. The truth is, most kids would probably benefit from getting hit in the face with a dodgeball a few times, it’ll be good for them in the long run. This I’m certain of.
I had a lot of fun playing dodgeball as a kid. It’s an absolute shame that there are “scholars” and “researchers” who equate it to very real life issues this world faces. Teaching kids that life isn’t fair from a young age is a good thing. Participation-trophy culture is not. I don’t need a Ph.D. to know so.
Dodgeball teaches you a great deal in a simple game. And if dodgeball supposedly teaches children lessons of democracy, then I sure as hell would want the future leaders of whatever world we venture towards to be able to dodge a wrench when someone throws one at their heads.
*Annie is not her real name. C’mon, how much of an asshole do you think I am?
Film Review: Booksmart
Booksmart is the wonderful story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood
Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut Booksmart has had a rough time at the box office since its release a few weeks ago. Pundits have placed blame on poor marketing by Annapurna Pictures (the studio releasing it) but in truth, the film just isn’t a big cinema flick. But there’s nothing wrong with that because, in every sense, Booksmart is a brilliant film. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully written, well-directed, and filled with stories that are relatable across generations. But box offices are intrinsically built on those first weekend numbers, it is why it exists, and it is a shame the team behind the film has made a big deal out of the lack of box office draw instead of building on what will surely make it a cult classic- word of mouth.
The film tells the story of Amy and Molly, two high school seniors who have spent their high school careers being great in class, but not so great socially. The day before graduation they realize that their plan of spending their high school careers buried in books, getting straight A’s, and then transcending into the upper echelon of higher education is thwarted when the very people they thought they were escaping, have, in fact, accomplished the same. The difference is that they all had fun during high school while Amy and Molly didn’t. What ensues is a smart pastiche of college humor comedies and high school coming-of-age flicks that have been a staple of cinema across generations. Taking cues from Superbad and the recent Blockers, Booksmart takes raunchy humor and gross-out jokes but injects them with contemporary social dynamics. Universal stories of high school joy, friendship, and heartbreak are told with the kind of relatable charm that is rare- relatable regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. Its inclusivity has been praised not because it is gratuitous or forced, but because it feels genuine and heartfelt.
The two leads, played by Beanie Feldstein (Neighbors 2) and Kaitlyn Dever, are brilliant. If you watched the sitcom Last Man Standing you always knew that Dever was destined for greatness, so it’s no surprise that Booksmart is a great vehicle for her and Feldstein to show their talents. They both act with enough nuance when it is needed, but both sizzle with chemistry when they need to be riotously funny- the screen becomes their canvas and it is hard to escape their presence. Dever and Feldstein are flanked by an assemblage of funny people- Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams, the funny kid from Santa Clarita Diet– who all contribute to the film’s balanced characters. It is only at times that a few of them seem a little too much like a cartoon that it detracts from the film (still not sure what Billie Lourd’s character is about).
Wilde’s first turn at directing has proven that she’s got a keen eye for it. Booksmart does all the basics right and when Wilde wants to shoot outside of the box, they get that right too (the scene in which our leads are trippin’ daisies on hallucinogens, in particular, comes off as both funny and well done).
Its strengths, aside from the leads, is the writing and the seemingly truthful way in which the film depicts teenagers (in this case, teenage girls) living through that period of high school transitioning off into college and the so-called ‘real world’. Much has been said about its authenticity, and even if you can’t directly relate, you can still feel and understand the emotions and the relationships. And that is something that is hard to do, and the writers, the cast, and Olivia Wilde have accomplished that.
So what exactly is the problem with Booksmart? And why haven’t people flocked to see it? It still feels like a “small” movie, hindered perhaps by its very Netflix-like production. It doesn’t have that big-budget, must-see-at-the-cinema demeanor that films like Superbad or even Blockers had. Even films like Neighbors and its sequel felt much bigger in scope. Booksmart just FEELS like a television movie, even if it’s not.
Poor box office runs haven’t been the death knell for small-budget, indie successes. There have been plenty of critically acclaimed films that have been dwarfed in the numbers by superheroes, cartoons and sinking ships. Hopefully, ones that fuel conversation (like Booksmart), will keep studios making them. It’s a shame that a lot of the news has relegated Booksmart to “box office failure” because it deserves more. In time, with good word of mouth, and as more and more people see it and realize its resonance, it surely will. It has to because the heart of this movie, the way in which it tells the story of complicated, messy but hopeful and joyous young adulthood will not let it die without a fight.
Booksmart is in US cinemas now and opens in Australian cinemas June 27.
Directed by: Olivia Wilde
Written by: Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel, Katie Silberman
Cast: Kaitlyn Dever, Beanie Feldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Jason Sudeikis, Will Forte, Jessica Williams
Released by: Annapurna Pictures
Runtime: 102 mins